minefield for Anonymous and hacktivism

Anonymous, Squad303, Cyber ​​Partisan: The war in Ukraine led to a surge in hacktivism. These teams carried out several cyberattacks on Russian facilities. But this highly publicized fight against Russian hacking or data theft is risky nonetheless.

“Since we declared electronic war on the criminal regime that controls the Kremlin, Anonymous has hacked over 2,500 Russian and Belarusian websites, including government websites, media, airports and banks.”

accusations, taken on Thursday, March 17, on Twitter by the Anonymous TV account, impossible to check. Indeed, it is difficult to attribute computer attacks to a decentralized collective of anonymous hacktivists, to which anyone can claim to belong.

But one thing is for sure: the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a surge in cyberwarfare and new media youth for Anonymous, which flourished in the early 2010s. “Never before has there been such a mobilization of hacktivists internationally to defend the same cause,” said Athena Karatsogianni, professor of communications at the University of Leicester who has studied the use of digital tools during cyber conflicts and was contacted by France 24.

Inaccessible sites, millions of messages sent to Russians

For those skilled with digital weapons, hacking campaigns against Russian targets serve as “an expression of solidarity, like those who agree to host a Ukrainian refugee,” said Dennis-Kenji Kipker, a lawyer and cybersecurity specialist at US University. Bremen, contacted France 24.

Especially since these militant hackers feel like they are responding to a call for help from the Ukrainian government. “With the outbreak of the war, Mikhail Fedorov, Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine, called on all digital talents to fight on the cyber front. And this applied not only to Ukrainians, ”recalls Athena Karatsoyanni.

Shortly thereafter, the Anonymous collective “declared war” on Vladimir Putin. They were joined by several other groups such as the Polish hacktivist movement Team303 or Belarusian cyber guerrillas posing as opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Then this international of hackers against Moscow multiplied its operations. There has been a spate of denial-of-service attacks (DDoS attacks are used to make a site unavailable by overloading query servers) against the Kremlin, the FSB (intelligence services), or even the state-owned RT television channel. .

These activists also managed to steal a lot of information from the servers of large groups such as Gazprom. or from the website of Roskomnadzor, Russian media policeman. They also took control of several Russian news channels such as Rossiya 24 or Channel One for about ten minutes to broadcast footage of Russian explosions.

Finally, Squad303, for its part, has developed a tool that allows anyone to send messages to Russian mobile phone numbers to “notify them of the reality of the conflict,” the hacktivist group says. squadron of Polish fighters during World War II. They claim that more than 20 million messages were sent to the Russians in this way.

Too early to assess the impact of this hacktivism

But at a time when the fighting is taking a heavy toll in Ukraine, these efforts in cyberspace may seem anecdotal. A cyberattack on the Duma’s website to post a pro-Ukrainian message on the main page will never have the same effect as a bomb dropped on a residential area in Kyiv or Mariupol.

“Of course, these operations will not change the face of the conflict, but they will have an impact,” said Dennis-Kenji Kipker. “It is still a little early to assess the role these activists will play in the conflict and, above all, they represent only one piece of the puzzle of all the efforts, including economic sanctions, that have been put in place to counter Russia,” he said. Vassilios Karagiannopoulos, a hacktivist specialist at the University of Portsmouth, contacted France 24.

For example, “it is possible that, after analysis, the data stolen by Anonymous will be useful for the Ukrainian authorities,” the expert adds. And we should not neglect the “symbolic impact of these cyberattacks,” says Athena Karatsoianni. They demonstrate that the Russian cyber army, often portrayed as one of the most experienced in the world, is not invincible. “This is also a message to the Ukrainians to show them that we are doing everything we can to help them,” Athena Karatsoyanni adds.

And operations such as hacking Russian TV channels “make it possible to defeat the Russians on the basis of the information war, which should be one of their strengths,” estimates a specialist from the University of Leicester.

The success of Anonymous and others seems to have inspired these hacktivists. Twitter is replete with messages warning of upcoming massive operations. A rise in power that is not without risk.

The risk of “playing along” with Vladimir Putin

“What happens if one of Anonymous’ attacks damages critical infrastructure in Russia, like a hospital?” asks Dennis-Kenji Kipker. “They have not received any training in cyber warfare, and there is always a risk of significant unexpected collateral damage,” admits Athena Karatsogyanni.

The UK authorities have also urged these “volunteers” to wage cyber warfare not to join the ranks of Anonymous, fearing that they will end up “unwittingly playing the game” of the master of the Kremlin, writes the British Guardian. “There is always a risk of escalation if Vladimir Putin can use the pretext of attacking Anonymous, claiming that this is evidence of Western involvement in the conflict,” Vasileos Karagiannopoulos said.

That’s the whole problem with bands like Anonymous, because they weren’t authorized by anyone to speak on behalf of anyone. They don’t have the right to “declare war” like they do.” Kenji Kipker. In other words, since they represent no one, it will not be difficult for the Kremlin to portray them as agents of the West. “Especially if these hacktivists are damaging infrastructure that is important to Russians on a daily basis. [comme des voies de chemins de fer, des hôpitaux etc.]which could strengthen support for the Russian opinion of Vladimir Putin,” the German researcher believes.

Dennis-Kenji Kipker believes that rather than risking offensive moves that could go wrong, Anonymous and other hacktivists “could help find the best ways to protect Ukrainian computer networks from Russian hackers.”

Thus, this war could be a turning point for hacktivism. It may go down in history as the conflict that allowed this form of activism to “become known worldwide as an effective means of struggle,” notes Vasileos Karagiannopoulos. Or these hackers will be responsible for a new escalation of the most important conflict in Europe since the end of World War II.

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